by Andreas Saugstad
How can philosophy make your life better? And what relevance does philosophy have to life? My view is that by engaging in the questions and situations we are confronted with in ordinary life, philosophy may give us a higher quality of life. Philosophy is relevant to life in the sense that it discusses the basic questions of human existence, and because philosophy is a creative activity carried out by individuals constructing meaning, philosophy is constitutive, i.e. it gives us meaning to life and gives reality a new dimension.
What is Philosophy?
“Philosophy” comes from the Greek word “philosophia” which means love for wisdom. A classical definition says that philosophy is love for truth and wisdom. Today we find philosophy as an academic discipline, conducted by professionals at the universities. Among academic philosophers there is much disagreement over what philosophy is and should be.
Some think that philosophy is and should continue to be an academic discipline, marked by a distinctive technical vocabulary and like any other academic area connected to a professional career. In addition, some of the philosophers who claim this, will emphasize that philosophy is to deal with abstract questions, often internal to the philosophy department. These philosophers will not be embarrassed if the solutions to these questions are without relevance for society in general.
The problem with such a view is that philosophy cannot be applied, and becomes a kind of game, like for instance chess. It is highly intellectual challenging, but the serious impact of chess on society is not that great. Thus some people would claim that philosophy should relate to society, and that philosophy as an academic discipline should educate people who may have an influence on society in general. As my Canadian friend Kai Frithjof Brand-Jacobsen says: “Philosophy and Life!” One shouldn’t have only the former or the latter but both! (Kai lives what he teaches, he is working within peace research and gives training programs for instance for the UN).
Philosophy should deal with important questions like: Is there a God? What is truth? But also: What is religion? What is the meaning of life? What is right and wrong? How should we understand the evil that has happened in Nazi-Germany or Bosnia? If philosophy deals with these questions, it can relate to the world. Philosophical texts would then be relevant to society in general.
Some philosophers have been engaged in public matters in their society. Examples may be Jean-Paul Sartre in France and Bertrand Russell in England. Sartre founded a magazine (Les Temps Modernes), a newspaper, and was active protesting against the Vietnam war, the war against Algerie, and certain of the political actions of the Soviet Union. Before he died in 1980, he was a public figure in Paris, and if you go there on holiday, you may find one of his favourite cafes. Russell in England showed some of the same courage as Sartre. In a addition to being a leading thinker within philosophy of mathematics and logic, he demonstrated against nuclear weapon started the Pugwash movement and communicated many of his opinions on issues relating to society in general.
The key point in my understanding of philosophy, is that philosophy should relate to the world and to life, and anyone engaged in thinking and writing could learn something from people like Russell and Sartre. A philosopher is someone who loves truth and wisdom, and tries actively to seek truth and wisdom, and such persons are always needed in public debates and civilized discourse.
The Good Life
But if philosophy can relate to life in general, we might all be able to learn something from the philosophers and the subject philosophy. Let us take a closer look at some philosophers, and try to see how philosophy may be of help in life and show us how the good life should be.
Aristotle believed that bios theoretikos was the best life for humans. By “bios theoretikos,” Aristotle meant a life where one thinks a lot, and contemplates about the order of the world in a theoretical or philosophical way. I think Aristotle was on the right track, I often reach a state of mild euphoria when discussing a philosophical problem.
Aristotle claimed that the contemplative life was the best, for instance because it resembled God’s mode of existence. Some have held a different opinion than Aristotle, for instance Ludwig Wittgenstein, who seems to have believed that the practical life was the best. The key here is perhaps to combine contemplation and action, but for me contemplation must always be prior to many of my great decisions and important actions.
Parts of Western tradition seem to have placed too much emphasis on the theoretical. You might not be able to identify with Evagrius of Pontus, who in the fourth century AD spent 16 years alone in the desert, engaging in contemplative mysticism and thinking about theology. You might not want to live the life of Kant, who always had a rigid schedule in order to be able do all of his academic work. He never traveled more than a few miles away from Königsberg, but obviously spent most of his time traveling in the realm of ideas. But even though you don’t don’t want to adopt the Evagrian monastic or the Kantian academic lifestyle, you probably feel that you have a great need to think and be mentally stimulated.
As the existentialists emphasize, man is a being that seeks meaning, and we need to think through some of the deepest questions of life. Philosophy, in the sense that we contemplate about general and abstract questions relating to our lives and society, is necessary for everyone in order to live life to the fullest. Most people do have questions about meaning, ethics, religion and society, and many seem to have a need to investigate these questions in a theoretical and general way. Thus philosophy is a means to what psychologists call self-actualization or self-realization.
Philosophy as Therapy
But philosophy in this broad sense, can be more than self-actualization, it can be therapy. A good example here might be Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Only 25 years old, he became a professor at the University of Basel in Switzerland. At the age of 35 he had to resign because of severe headaches. After this he traveled around in Europe, he must have been quite lonely, and when we look at some of the stuff he has written, we may get the impression that he felt that life was without meaning.
This is a feeling that many modern or postmodern people may have. People feel that life is without a grand meaning, and most of all suffering seems to be meaningless. But Nietzsche showed that he was a great existentialist. To survive in difficult times, he created a philosophy that functioned as therapy. “Everything that doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger” he wrote. And likewise: “We may handle any how, if we only have a why.”
According to Nietzsche, the central task is to create a perspective that makes life more sustainable. We must, if we follow Nietzsche, develop mental strategies to cope with life. We are thinking beings whether we like it or not, and thinking may be used as an instrument to develop perspectives and mental schemes that makes life a joy, even in difficult situations. One does not have to accept all of Nietzsche’s opinions to see that his creative philosophical activity and the attempt to create meaning helped him a lot during his difficult years.
Thoughts inspired by Nietzsche may be combined with insights from modern psychological therapy. According to cognitive therapy, many of the problems associated with mental illness are based on the fact that one thinks incorrectly or inadequately. When someone starts to think in a new way and creates a philosophy, this perspective may be of great help.
My idea is that philosophy may be a path to mental health, both because the thinking in itself gives pleasure, but also because one may get a more clear perspective on everything happening in this world. To understand why, makes it easier to cope with any how. This is something many people outside the academic philosophical discussions are engaged in, but reading texts from the philosophical tradition doesn’t hurt!
When we use our creativity something more than self-realization and therapy takes place. Creative philosophers make something new. The mental and inner life changes, and when we develop as mental beings this may result in action. Both reading and thinking opens a new world, by giving insight into what others have thought as well as through the challenge of engaging in personal reflections and attempts at understanding reality. Philosophy in this sense is an important and joyful part of life!
Reading and reflecting upon texts by Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Russell or Wittgenstein may be stimulating, a kind of therapy and develop one’s mental world. My vision is that philosophy can have an impact on society in general, and that activity the history of philosophy represents can be a fruitful part of many peoples lives.